Trump peddles snake oil over chloroquine test, false hope

opinion

One of the first acts of the federal precursor to the Food and Drug Administration in 1916 was to crack down on the sale of a cowboy's cure-all called Stanley's Snake Oil, which government chemists discovered promised much more than it delivered. The product helped give rise to the expression snake-oil salesman. 

If Donald Trump wasn't quite the quintessential snake-oil salesman at a news briefing this week and on Twitter Saturday — touting preliminary and even unproven medical remedies to the new coronavirus pandemic — he came disturbingly close. 

Perhaps eager to demonstrate haste and hope after squandering weeks with a glacial rollout of COVID-19 testing kits, the president pitched Thursday that his FDA is now "slashing all the red tape"  to review new therapies that:

►"Have shown very encouraging — very, very encouraging early results."

►"Could be a game changer. Very powerful."

►"Could be a tremendous breakthrough."

FDA contradicts Donald Trump

Shortly after Trump made these remarks, the FDA rushed out a statement making it clear that there are no approved therapies or drugs to treat COVID-19.

Maybe clinical trials of these therapies will show promising results. We surely hope so. But for now, Trump risks giving Americans false hope about some pills they might use to ward off the effects of a virus 10 times more lethal, and three times as contagious, as the common flu.

His specific pitch focused on antiviral drugs used to treat other diseases. But none of them has yet shown safe and effective against COVID-19, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading immunologist and a member of the White House's anti-coronavirus task force.

Moreover, there was no "immediate" FDA move to make them available as a coronavirus treatment. To the contrary, agency chief Stephen Hahn said clinical trials are underway, and scientists are hoping for the best. However, he added Thursday during a White House briefing, "what's also important is not to provide false hope."

COVID-19, chloroquine, remdesivir

Trump specifically focused on an anti-malarial drug called chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, and an antiviral drug used to treat Ebola, known as remdesivir. (A third antiviral drug, lopinavir–ritonavir, used as an HIV treatment, was recently found ineffective against COVID-19.)

Trump peddles snake oil over chloroquine test, false hope

Fauci said any supporting evidence for the antiviral drugs is largely anecdotal. "We've got to able to determine if they work and if they're safe," Fauci told a Journal of the American Medical Association podcast the day before Trump began pitching both of them as potential success stories. "That's going to be really a challenge as the weeks unfold and (coronavirus) cases increase."

The contrast between Trump's hype and Fauci's scientific method played out like reality TV on Friday as both appeared to contradict each other during a remarkable White House news briefing. "I disagree," Trump said, with Fauci nearby. "I feel good about (the treatments). That's all it is. Just a feeling. You know, I'm a smart guy."

For a public eager for some semblance of leadership in a national crisis, the display was far from reassuring. 

The same presidential obstinacy surfaced Saturday, when Dr. Trump informed his 75 million Twitter followers about a tiny French study of 48 people showing that chloroquine, when combined with the antibiotic used in Z-Pak medication, might be effective against the coronavirus. "A real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine," Trump tweeted. 

It will take more than a year to produce a vaccine to finally quell COVID-19. In the meantime, it's vital to study existing or new antivirals that might dampen the effect or duration of the new coronavirus. But it's also important, as the FDA chief said, not to offer false hope while that research is underway. 

In this crisis, all Americans must stay vigilant with social distancing and personal hygiene to avoid infection. If Trump's promises about quick cures cause people to relax their preparedness because they believe that some pill to protect them is right around the corner, it places everyone more at risk.

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